Reading the Gospels Wisely: a Book Review
November 15, 2018
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In Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan Pennington aims to make readers wise hearers and followers [of Christ] through rightly engaging with the fourfold Gospels. Using the analogy of building a house, Pennington views his book as a blueprint “for building a Gospel-reading house and thereby life” (xii). The reader is invited, through his approach, into the joy of studying the Gospels more deeply and more often, and—relying heavily on a repeated quotation from Augustine—led to respond in a greater love for God and neighbor.
Analysis and Critique
Pennington seems driven by two equally important principles: Hearing and understanding the Gospels rightly. Part One, which focuses on definitions, purpose, and philosophy, is heavily shaped by the former, while Parts Two and Three (which turn their attention to methodology for reading and teaching) are influenced more by the latter. Writing as an academic to preachers and teachers, Pennington is most concerned with presenting them a method for reading and teaching the Gospels in order to not merely communicate information, but rather to build up others in love for God and neighbor. To this end, Reading the Gospels Wisely, comes off as both academically and theologically rigorous, but also very pastoral and warm in tone.
In Part One, Pennington presents a robust definition for the message and meaning of the Gospels: “theological, historical, and aretological (virtue-forming) biographical narratives that retell the story and proclaim the significance of Jesus Christ, who through the power of the Spirit is the Restorer of God’s reign” (35). I found this to be a cumbersome, but very good definition, especially when “the gospel” can so easily be narrowly understood as the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection. It also proves helpful that the subsequent chapters unfold parts of this definition as it relates to reading the Gospels wisely: theological (chaps. 1-3), historical and literary (chaps. 4-6), and aretological (chaps. 7-8).
Picking up on contemporary debates in biblical studies, Pennington highlights the significant (and often negative) influence of Historicism in our study of Scripture broadly, and the Gospels in particular. He charitably criticizes the work of such people as N.T. Wright, acknowledging the value of historical reconstruction for interpreting the text while cautioning against being too driven by the historical-critical method. Drawing on the work of Richard Bauckham and others, he helpfully suggests approaching the Gospels as testimonies. This section is easily the densest part of the book, could have been shortened and combined with the following chapter, which further elaborates on ideas like authorial intent vs divine intent, meaning (and application), and one’s posture to the text (as standing under the Word). Yet, this section is also the most fruitful in terms of academic engagement with the Gospels by revealing the presuppositions that are often assumed in biblical studies, and in providing a way for the pastor and teacher to balance both the historical and theological nature of the text as he or she sets about the task of reading and teaching.
Part Two is where Pennington shines, applying the foundational work to a particular Gospel passage (Luke 7:1-10) and laying out his methodological approach for reading wisely. Chapters 9 and 10 read like the thoughts of a pastor-theologian in the sermon writing process and will be helpful to anyone who studies and teaches the Bible. Pennington helpfully points out the dangers of a “Whatever Strikes Me” hermeneutic and proposes a narrative analysis approach that reads the text as story with rising tension, a climax, resolution, and subsequent action or interpretation. Not only does this approach take the text seriously as a testimony, but it also enables the reader to more easily find the main point (which usually occurs in the climax/resolution).
However, Pennington wisely recognizes that pericopes are not isolated stories, but are recorded in the midst of the larger story of a given Gospel account, and that within the larger story of canonical history (the restoration of God’s reign). These stories must likewise be considered so that we do not miss the way a passage fits into the wider work of God. One of the most important comments Pennington makes here, though, is the interpretive weight that must be given to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He argues—and based on their pervasive influence on the rest of the New Testament, I agree—that these events were central the authors’ accounts and one of the keys to understanding any given text within the Gospels. Some may disagree with this emphasis, but I think it is crucial for being rightly oriented to many of the teaching texts in the Gospels, as well as the full significance of texts regarding discipleship, sacrifice, and the nature of the kingdom of God.
This leads to the final section, focused on teaching. Application, according to Pennington, begins with God and then, only after discovering how he reveals himself and his redemptive work, turns to identification. This is a helpful dichotomy, as it is easy to solely focus on one or the other, depriving hearers of any good news or, on the other hand, any call to responsive action. While not a book on preaching, Pennington provides some helpful preaching cues from Daniel Doriani and Bryan Chapell, including frameworks for asking good homiletical questions and the sermon itself. My only wish is that he would have left himself more space to elaborate, defend against objections, and caution against poor frameworks.
Having already wrapped up his methodological approach, the final chapter seeks to persuade the reader to view the Gospels as a “canon within a canon.” Or to put it another way: “the texts that guide and direct our overall reading of Scripture” (230). Pennington argues from history, citing the formative role of the Jesus traditions in the life of the early church, the purpose of biographies in ancient times, and the centrality of Gospel materials in early church writings and worship. When coupled with the canonical/theological arguments, I found his argument compelling. The sections on the Gospels as consummation of the Biblical story, and the pervasive use of the Jesus traditions in the rest of the New Testament prove to be powerful points (masking the weaker points of placing the Gospels at the front of the New Testament and the comprehensive theology argument). If accepted, he argues, it should reorient and reshape our reading of the Bible, our worship, and discipleship. While a good chapter, it seems that it could have been included earlier in the foundation section or excluded altogether as it doesn’t necessarily fit with the previous summary chapter.
Overall, I found myself strongly agreeing with Pennington throughout and strongly recommend this book. His definitions are helpful, his philosophical work, while somewhat over-articulated, is challenging, and the balanced tone—academic and pastoral—enjoyable. More time could have been dedicated to the methodology, and some of the supporting points for his concluding argument were rather weak (i.e. his assumptions about the oral tradition and public reading of the Gospels; two things challenged by more recent work by Dr. Michael Kruger in Christianity at the Crossroads) However, this book is a great introduction to the study of the Gospels, and an aid to reading and teaching them in ways that are faithful, wise, and that lead to transformation.
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